UN flags role of China’s traditional medicine in global demand for trafficked pangolin scales

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has published an advanced chapter of its 2nd World Wildlife Crime Report, highlighting how demand for pangolin scales in China drives poaching and trafficking across Africa and Asia.

This comes on the heels of news in March that scientists have concluded there is a possible, but unproven, role of pangolins in the transfer of the coronavirus (aka COVID-19) virus from animals to humans.

The UNODC report presents information on pangolin trafficking from a global wildlife database of seizures reported by governments and it builds on a similar assessment in its 1st World Wildlife Crime Report.

Close up image of a ground pangolin (c) African Pangolin Working Group

(c) African Pangolin Working Group

The new report chapter states that the majority (71 per cent) of pangolin scales seized around the world between 2007-18 have been destined for China, where they are used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Vietnam was also identified as a significant destination.

In China, while it is illegal to poach wild pangolins and consume them as food, the Wildlife Protection Law (2017) allows for the commercial use of pangolin scales in TCM and for the breeding of pangolins in captivity.

A Chinese Government notice issued in November 2007 allows licensed hospitals and pharmaceutical companies to legally trade and utilise pangolin scales from a national stockpile.

Although the total volume of pangolin scales in this stockpile has never been released, it is known that 186 tonnes of scales were released in quotas between 2008-14. It is very likely that demand for scales in China far exceeds supply from legal sources and that illegally sourced scales are ending up in manufactured medicine products and hospital-prescribed medicinal formulas.

The UNODC report states that in 2013 there was a shift in the origin of large pangolin scale seizures from Asia to Africa. Other reports have suggested the trend in pangolin scales trafficked from Africa to Asia began about 2008. To avoid law enforcement attention, wildlife criminals exploit countries with a weaker rule of law to stockpile pangolin scales prior to onward shipment.

Most large shipments now originate in West and Central Africa, where Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are major transit hubs for global pangolin trafficking. In 2017, EIA documented the growing role of Nigeria in the export of ivory and pangolin scales to China in our report The Shuidong Connection: Exposing the global hub of the illegal ivory trade.

Pangolin scales seizure, Nigeria

We have also recorded a minimum of 178 tonnes of pangolin scales seized between 2015-19 which either originated in or went via Nigeria, the DR Congo or Cameroon.

In response to the suspected links between wildlife consumption and coronavirus, the Chinese Government took measures in January 2020 to restrict the consumption of wildlife as food. This year, China’s National People’s Congress – the country’s highest law-making body – is due to revise the country’s Wildlife Protection Law.

Chris Hamley, EIA’s Senior Pangolin Campaigner said: “An end to the global trafficking in such enormous quantities of pangolin scales will only be realised if demand for their use in China’s TCM market is eliminated.

“Transnational organised crime groups trafficking pangolin scales between Africa and Asia are profiting from the devastating ecological and societal damage they are causing.

“While the link between pangolins and the coronavirus is uncertain, these creatures do carry coronaviruses and their trade remains a major risk factor in the transfer of disease between animals and humans.

“Decisive legislative action from China to end the use of pangolins and other threatened species in TCM would be a major step forward to ensure their future survival and prevent more pandemics.

“This needs to be combined with the destruction of pangolin scale stockpiles and the removal of pangolin scales from official Chinese medicinal formula documents.”